As the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney enters its last week, pollsters and analysts are preparing for the worst case scenarios that could follow Election Day. Endless lawsuits and vote recounts are being readied as polls show an increasingly tight race. Experts are already recalling the contested recount election of 2000 between former President George W. Bush and Al Gore over Florida’s 29 electoral votes.
While the punditocracy continues to pontificate on the margin of error in some far-flung swing-states, Americans in the vast majority of these United States have to stand idly by as the fate of their democracy and that of the free world is decided by a narrow portion of the electorate.
The Electoral College, designed at the birth of the Republic and enshrined in our Constitution, is an affront to the notion of democracy, denying hundreds of millions of Americans from exercising an effective vote in our country’s political process.
In his seminal analysis “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” on the nation’s founding document’s drafting and ratification, historian Charles A. Beard described the obstruction of popular democracy as intentional. Our nation’s Founding Fathers, in their interest of protecting the land and industry of their fortunes, prevented the democratic process from taking root in the country out of fear of popular demands for confiscated wealth and the violation of property rights.
Social unrest in the aftermath of the American Revolution led to Shay’s rebellion, a popular social movement by poor indebted former Continental soldiers led by Daniel Shay in Massachusetts that called for debt relief and the redistribution of wealth. In response, the constitutional delegates at the Annapolis and Philadelphia conventions in 1786 and 1787 ensured that political power would be more resistant to such influences.
A quick examination of the political process stipulated in the Constitution as it was originally ratified will show how insidious the Founders believed democracy to be.
America’s president was to be and still is chosen by an undemocratic Electoral College that is won by unelected “electors” not directly affected by popular will. The Senate, until the ratification of Amendment XVII in 1913, did not have its members elected popularly; rather, they were selected by their state’s legislature. Lastly, the Supreme Court, the least democratic institution of the federal government, was and still is benched by individuals who serve with legal life tenure on the simple, vague condition that they exhibit“good behavior.”
The House of Representatives alone stands as the most democratic of the nation’s federal institutions in its original image and even it falls short of the description. Early laws passed in numerous states prevented the poor, non-property holding class from exercising the vote in selecting their representative in the so called “people’s house.”
Compound these exclusions to the democratic process in early America with the protection of chattel slavery and status of women as tantamount to legal property and you have an image of what democracy once meant and no longer does.
The lesson of history is that minorities and a disenfranchised majority can (and should) reclaim the democratic process from privileged individuals and institutions.
As November 6 approaches we should vote our conscience, but we should not be content alone in its expression. Democracy is not a noun, it is a verb; political action, simply put, does not end at the ballot box.
All the correctives to American democracy did not come from formal parties that attained political power. Social movements and fringe parties have always led the crusade for a more inclusive and just democracy in the United States.
The Liberty Party combated slavery. Suffragists fought for women’s suffrage. Socialists, yes socialists, fought to end child labor, organize labor and create Social Security.
To have a democracy worthy of the title it must be social, all must have the rights and means to formally and effectively participate in it. In the wake of Citizens United, when the rich and powerful can buy the representatives of our increasingly anemic democracy, it is more important than ever to fight for what is rightly ours.
Liberty, justice and democracy for all.